Animal welfare expert says Chinese wet markets need to close to avoid more pandemics

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Coronavirus pandemic graphic

MYSTERY WIRE — The origin of COVID-19 is still being hotly debated on social media, and an assortment of conspiracy theories have emerged. But public health experts say the most likely source of the infection is one of the so-called wet markets in China.

Animal welfare advocates have been warning about these mysterious places for years. Animal welfare and human health are inextricably linked, whether we like to admit it or not.

For example, Asian meat markets have always been breeding grounds for serious diseases. Animal organizations have warned about the wet markets, not only because of the inherent cruelty of cramming so many different species, wild, domestic, even endangered, into tiny crates stacked on top of each other. As many as 70 percent of the diseases affecting humans started in animals.

Wayne Pacelle (Photo: biography.com)

Wayne Pacelle, president of the Animal Wellness Action group and former chief executive officer of The Humane Society of The United States, is one of the leading advocates who’s spent years lobbying congress to take action. “So this is where it started. And it should be no mystery to anybody,” Pacelle said. “We’ve been warning about it. We’ve been screaming. We’ve been stomping our feet. We’ve been raising our hand saying, ‘eliminate the wet markets, it’s going to spawn the next pandemic.’ And it’s done exactly that.”

Just this week, Yahoo news reported on other similar markets outside of China and the problems created in them. Yahoo wrote, “Despite evidence the coronavirus pandemic spread to humans due to wildlife consumption, many regions including Africa, South East Asia and Australia are continuing to trade in wild animals.”

The bodies of a pangolin and monkey lie side by side. Pangolins may have transferred COVID-19 from bats to humans. Source: Aaron Gekoski for World Animal Protection

After the coronavirus outbreak, China closed down its wet markets, but now they are open again. What, if anything, can the U.S. do about it? Legislation is pending before congress. Pacelle says China cannot be trusted to handle this problem on its own.


Please watch or continue reading the complete interview between George Knapp and Wayne Pacelle as they continue the conversation about these mysterious markets and the treatment of the animals.

GEORGE KNAPP: You’re right in the thick of these things you’ve been warning about these animal markets, these meat markets, wet markets in China and elsewhere in the US for a long time. People are finally starting to pay attention.

WAYNE PACELLE: This is no mystery. This was forecast. This was predicted. In 2002, China had an outbreak of SARS, that became an epidemic and went all over the world. Hundreds of people died. Thousands were infected, and it incubated and was originally transmitted to any wet market in China. After that China said, ‘oh, we’re going to stop the wet markets.’ And months later, they forgot about it and they reneged on that. And here we are. You know, 17 years later, with a rehash except that this is even more virulent. It’s more transmissible and it’s turned our global economy, absolutely upside down.

GEORGE KNAPP: I mean, it is a learning opportunity for the rest of the world. You know, animal welfare advocates, like yourself have been warning about this for a long, long time, as well as public health officials. But now, I mean, it should have the whole world’s attention.

WAYNE PACELLE: I can’t think of anything bigger that’s happened in my lifetime in terms of economic effect. And you know, to a degree even though it’s quite unclear where we’re going on this, what the public health effect is, but thousands have died. Tens of thousands are likely to die in the United States. We’ve lost trillions of dollars as a global economy, it’s changed our social behavior, all for what, for a minor transaction at an open air market in China for a food item. That’s a wild animal product. When we have plenty of other food options in the world. This is not a necessary industry for China or any part of the world. And we know what a great health risk this poses to think of the asymmetrical circumstance, a minor transaction, somebody buying a pangolin or a bat or a cat and having a multi trillion dollar effect on our economy, with hundreds of thousands of people globally, perhaps dying before we’re done. I mean, can you imagine something that is more consequential from some little tiny hack that we could consider frivolous in the world.

RELATED: Looking At China’s Dangerous Animal-Use Practices, While Also Looking At Our Own Reckless Industries In The U.S.

GEORGE KNAPP: How solid is the evidence that the meat market, the wet market in China is the source of this virus? Because, you know, there are a lot of different conspiracy theories floating around about who released it and why make the case.

WAYNE PACELLE: You know, it’s nothing new, I mean, 60 to 70% of infectious diseases that afflict you in being started in animals. We have a whole history of them, I can run through them and so many of you, some of your listeners know what those are. The reality is the major scientific organizations including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the very prominent doctor who’s been helping, the face of this in the United States, Dr. Fauci. So this is where it started. And it should be no mystery to anybody. And we’ve been warning about it. We’ve been screaming. We’ve been stomping our feet. We’ve been raising our hand saying ‘eliminate the wet markets.’ It’s going to spawn the next pandemic. And it’s done exactly that.

GEORGE KNAPP: You in all likelihood started looking at this not from a public health issue, but animal welfare issue. Describe for me the conditions in those markets, why they are breeding grounds for these kinds of viruses and the cruelty that is inherent in their operation.

WAYNE PACELLE: Well, the cruelty starts sometimes with the capture of the animals from the wild. Maybe killing a mother animal and taking the offspring or capturing the animal in an inhumane way, then long distance transport, and then landing at a market where they’re kept in a cage that’s barely larger than their bodies. They can see other animals being killed in front of them. They are butchered without any kind of stunning or any loss of consciousness that’s stipulated under our federal humane slaughter standards and rules. I mean, the whole experience is just torture for the animals. It’s also against our values about conservation, because some of these species are rare, like pangolins, the most trafficked animal in the world. Others are just barbarically treated. And again, all for what, for a little strange little delicacy at times for somebody? And then we’re putting the entire world at risk for our economy and our health. I mean, I can’t think of anything bigger in the United States since maybe World War Two in terms of its effect on our social behavior, or economy. I mean, it’s as big as it gets.

GEORGE KNAPP:  The Chinese after the virus outbreak, sort of shut down their economy and their country announced that these wet markets, these meat markets would be shut down. Now we’re seeing reports of them reopening. There’s a story in the la times today about how the Chinese government has invested in this as economic development for rural areas. Are you confident that these things can be shut down for good or is it going to take more radical action on our part and other nations’ part?

WAYNE PACELLE: No, I don’t think we can trust the Chinese government on this. They made the same promises after the SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003. It’s amazing that they’re already pulling back on the commitment just days after they made it. As the global circumstance with the advance of COVID-19 has accelerated you would have thought that they would maybe do so if they were being intelligent about it, after the world’s focus has left them, but the world’s focus is on them. And that’s why I’m excited about the idea of the US Senate, perhaps some key lawmakers introducing legislation to address live markets in the United States and other parts of the world to the extent that they can, urging the World Health Organization to take action. The Australian Prime Minister just yesterday demanded that China address these wet markets. So I don’t think we’ve heard the final word on this.

GEORGE KNAPP: You work with Congress a lot. So are you saying that you’re aware of legislation that’s being crafted or at least thought about so far?

WAYNE PACELLE: Absolutely. There are letters that have already been sent to the Chinese ambassador to the United States, urging him to, to use his influence to get the rest of the government to actually stop these wet markets from operating and even to enforce that law. And then I think there’s going to be authorizing legislation. Obviously, we can’t control in the United States what China does, but we can send an important signal by stopping live markets in the United States. And our live markets are real and wild animals are sold in major urban communities in the United States, frogs or turtles, some of which are imported from Taiwan and other parts of Asia. This has got to stop but what it will do is if we enacted it will not only spare these animals, tremendous cruelty in the United States and protect us, but it will also set a standard that we as the United States are not asking China and Thailand and Laos and other countries to do anything, or to do something that we ourselves are not willing to do. It’s very similar to the dog and cat meat issue, the Congress, at our urging, passed the ban on killing dogs and cats for meat for human consumption in the United States. We just got that done two years ago. We did it because there was a burgeoning market in the US. But we also did it to show that again, we’re willing to do this, you should too.

GEORGE KNAPP: Shutting down wet markets in Chinatowns in the US is one thing, taking on the meat industry is another and you’ve battled with them over issues of animal welfare and public health regarding factory farm operations for factory food operations. How likely is it that what’s going on now will eventually affect those kinds of operations when a learning moment would sink in?

WAYNE PACELLE: Well, you know, we’ve been worrying about wet markets in China and other parts of the world, including the US for years. Now, sadly, the chickens have come home to roost. But we’ve also been equally warning about the overuse of antibiotics on America’s factory farms. 80% of all classes of antibiotics, the ones that we use that we give to our parents and our kids and everybody in between. These antibiotics are being given to animals on a daily basis, and it’s promoting the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria. And that means that the antibiotics that we need to save ourselves when we get sick are going to be rendered useless. So in a different way, it’s not creating a new disease, what it’s doing, it’s it’s rendering the classes of treatment that we have that are life saving, useless against these against these pathogens. So I think the power of the factory farming lobby, the pharmaceutical lobby, the veterinary industry, they all have a vested interest in continuing this. I think it’s gonna be a long battle. But I’m astonished that we are so short sighted that we’re not looking seriously at a policy solution on that issue.

GEORGE KNAPP: You and the organization you represent sound the alarm bell a couple times a year, every time there’s some kind of a meat recall. I mean, these factory farm operations, the giant meat plants, they are like a petri dish for disease and meat often has to be treated like toxic waste.

WAYNE PACELLE: Yeah, I mean, it’s not just the overuse of antibiotics, but there are hormones that are a threat to our health. There is also salmonella and the other bacteria, other pathogens that you know, get into the meat and we consume it and there are millions sickened every year by the meat that we eat. And you might say some plant products as well. But there’s something different about this in terms of the intensity of it and that these pathogens can live in the animals.

GEORGE KNAPP: Now that people are stuck at home isolated, they have time to think, seems to be an opportune moment to think about their diets overall and how making small changes can help the planet in very positive ways. You know, I know you don’t want to lecture people about what they should or shouldn’t eat because people get their dander up about that. But isn’t it a learning opportunity, I would think.

WAYNE PACELLE: It’s a learning opportunity. And food choices are important, right? They’re important for our own health. They’re important for the planet’s health. They’re important for animals. I mean, animals are stuck in the mix here. And many of these slaughterhouses and factory farms are very removed from our daily experience. If we get a close look at what’s happening, what happens to the animals and the systematic mistreatment. Then we layer on the effects of food safety concerns that are so prevalent. We looked at the environmental impacts, I mean, and agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas submissions. We think of 9 billion animals every year, raised and slaughtered for food in the US. Think of all the waste that comes from those factory farms that go into our waterways and putrefies the air. I mean, this is not an abstraction. This is something that every one of us should be thinking about, because it’s a matter of self interest for us, for our families, our community, our country, the planet. And I don’t hesitate to say people should think about this because it’s so central to our survival. And if we’re conscious about animals, we also must be thinking about their well being as well.

GEORGE KNAPP: I mean, animal welfare and human health and well being are inextricably linked. It’s always been that way.

WAYNE PACELLE: Our lives have always been bound together with animals, whether we realize it or not. And this horrid mistreatment of wild animals at these live animal markets is an indicator of how things really go wrong when we mistreat animals. That’s what’s happening, you know, in a different way with different manifestations on our factory farms. We are treating these animals like things and objects and their big consequences for our own public health for animal health, or planetary health. And I think there are big moral questions about how we should be treating other sentient creatures. These animals have lives that matter to them. And we should be conscious, especially because we have choices in our diets that we can make choices that when we go more plant based, it’s going to be healthier for us as individuals.

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